State senate Republican leadership, joined by two of the Democrats—Sens. Jim Kastama (D-25, Puyallup) and Rodney Tom (D-48, Bellevue)—who joined GOP early last month in a coup to pass Republican budget chief Sen. Joe Zarelli's (R-18, Ridgefield) budget, held a press conference today in response to the latest house budget proposal from the majority Democrats.
Even though the new house Democratic proposal leaves a much smaller ending fund ($70 million as opposed to the Democrats' original $300 million) by spending about $200 million more, the group of conservative senators wasn't taking issue with the Democratic line items; indeed, the Democrats gave in on their "gimmick" of delaying a $330 million school payment by one day until the first day of the next biennium.[pullquote]"Speaking for the Democrats that have joined in this coalition for a bipartisan budget, our bottom line has been that we want a balanced budget this year ... and that we make sure that January 1st, we come back, and we have a balanced budget then too."—Jim Kastama[/pullquote]
Instead,the conservative crew dedicated the 30-minute press conference to ridiculing the Democrats' budget companion bills, a batch of bills that were intended to meet the GOP's (and Kastama and Tom's) call for government reform.
For example, three big reforms that Zarelli and the Democratic duo want are: 1) a four-year balanced budget amendment; 2) giving the state control over K-12 employee health care; and 3) getting rid of early retirement options for new state employees. The house Democratic proposal comes with a two-year balanced budget amendment instead of a four-year amendment (making the four-year idea advisory); makes K-12 health plans more transparent, but doesn't not turn the plans over to the state; and only eliminates the early retirement option offered in 2007, while the Zarelli proposal eliminates the 2000 and 2007 early retirement plans.
"It boggles my mind, that we always go to this 'Washington Lite' model, trying to do the most minimal change possible" Tom said. "When it comes to reforms, we need real reforms, we can't just pass bills that are [placeholder] bills and run out and say we've reformed government, knowing full well that we haven't. The biggest problem with that is then you have no sustainability. And when you have no sustainability, education gets hurt, higher education gets devastated."
Tom elaborated his frustration on the Democrats' retirement proposal specifically, saying: "When I talk to my constituents, most of them are going, 'okay Rodney, I have to work until I'm 67, 68, 69. Why am I real interested in funding a system where people want to retire at 53 and 56?' I mean the public's not going to go for that. You need a level playing field. And in today's world, there's not a level playing field between what's available in the public sector and what most of our constituents out there are experiencing in their day to day jobs."
His Democratic cohort in the GOP coalition, Sen. Kastama, focused on the balanced budget amendment, a bill he's sponsoring with Zarelli.
"The house bill makes a two-year balanced budget mandatory in statute, [but] we already do that. Every budget we come out of the legislature with, you have to balance. It's absolutely something we do every single time. So to come forward and say we're going to now have a mandatory balanced budget every two years? Something we're already doing?"
The Democrats make Kastama's four-year balanced budget amendment "advisory." He groused: "Making the four-year [balanced budget] just advisory---well, we don't want to put in place reforms that don't make a difference, that don't alter the way decisions are made. Their [proposal], frankly, just confirms what we already do."
[Editorial note: A real balanced budget amendment should actually take into account cuts in spending, factoring in, for example, how cuts to the Disability Lifeline may end up pushing up costs in other areas such as criminal justice. However, that's not part of Kastama's equation.]
Nonetheless, Kastama concluded: "Speaking for the Democrats that have joined in this coalition for a bipartisan budget, our bottom line has been that we want a balanced budget this year ... and that we make sure that January 1st, we come back, and we have a balanced budget then too. In the long term, we think you have to put in place reforms that will change our expenditure trajectory in the future and align them with our actual revenue. Five years from now, we're facing anywhere between a $2-3 billion shortfall ever single year. We have to do something about that now.[pullquote]"But please, remember there are the things we need too. We're not getting a lot of love around the reforms."—Sen. Joe Zarelli[/pullquote]
Their new ally, Republican Zarelli said the house proposal "takes us further apart then it brings us together. I don't see it as a good faith effort."
After changing his initial budget coup version that cut education and suspended an employee pension payment, Zarelli complained "we bought most of the stuff that they needed to buy in that second version, so we demonstrated clearly that we're willing to help them with the spending situation. But please, remember there are the things we need too. We're not getting a lot of love around the reforms. We can't do all the things that they want on the budget [education spending presumably?] and then get this watered-down presentation of the stuff that's really important to our side and be happy and go home."